The 20 Best Books of a Decade That Unmade Genre Fiction

If you don’t have vertigo, you’re reading it wrong. In 67 simple words, she whisks us from the top of the mountain “level below level” to the bottom, then straight back up “ridge behind ridge.” Not even birds travel that fast; we humans, forced to fly, can scarcely breathe. Number Four, Privet Drive, this is not.

(Le Guin wasn’t so thrilled that so few critics recognized the roots of Harry Potter and Hogwarts in her early boy-wizard fantasies. She needn’t have fretted. Literature will remember Rowling’s flights as considerably more grounded.)

Le Guin never wanted you to be comfortable. One doesn’t cozy up with The Dispossessed, or The Lathe of Heaven, or Always Coming Home; one must interact with them, and actually, actively read. Because beneath her hard surfaces lies a deep, flowing warmth, the reward of effort. Who was writing imaginative fiction like that, before her? There was the odd contribution, now and then, but nothing and no one so committed to this project, that of breaking down, myth below myth, the genre of fantasy and remaking it, story behind story, back up. For much of the establishment, which for so long kept genre imprisoned in the literary sub-basement, she set it free. To hard science fiction she brought humanity, morality, the so-called soft sciences—sterile words for what in reality are the hardest truths of living.

The year of Le Guin’s death, a short story came out called “The Ones Who Stay and Fight.” It was, its author said, “a pastiche of and reaction to Le Guin’s ‘The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.’” That original, published in 1973, still gets passed around today, often by teachers hoping to shake and unsettle the brains of their complacent students. In just a few pages, we're asked to imagine a society, Omelas, perfect in all ways but one: It depends for its just prosperity on the terrible suffering of a single child. So the central ethical dilemma: Is it worth it? The ones who don’t think so, walk away. The title of the 2018 update, the spiritual sequel, is an implicit refutation: You shouldn’t walk away. You should stay and fight for the child. Its author—whose rise, in this decade of science fiction and fantasy, is the other term in our equation—is N. K. Jemisin. If Le Guin was the death, Jemisin is the birth.

It is too neat and altogether too soon to call Jemisin this generation’s Ursula Le Guin. (Nor is Jemisin, as she’s more often, and suspiciously, labeled, our Octavia Butler.) To pastiche Le Guin, however, is to put oneself in her lineage, which Jemisin knows and is not wrong to do. She is the finest writer of the fantastic in our time. Not so much a double, then, as a successor, and the worthiest one we have.

Jemisin’s Um-Helat is no easier a thought experiment than Le Guin’s Omelas. (Note the similar-sounding names, along with the faint echo, in both, of “injustice.”) Possibly, it’s even harder. Um-Helat is outwardly utopian, too, and Jemisin paints just as vivid a picture:

The slanting afternoon sun stretches golden over the city, reflected light sparkling along its mica-flecked walls and laser-faceted embossings. A breeze blows up from the sea, tasting of brine and minerals, so fresh that a spontaneous cheer wafts along the crowded parade route. Young men by the waterfront, busily stirring great vats of spiced mussels and pans of rice and peas and shrimp, cook faster, for it is said in Um-Helat that the smell of the sea wakes up the belly. Young women on streetcorners bring out sitars and synthesizers and big wooden drums, the better to get the crowd dancing the young men’s way. When people stop, too hot or thirsty to continue, there are glasses of fresh tamarind-lime juice. Elders staff the shops that sell this, though they also give away the juice if a person is much in need. There are always souls needing drumbeats and tamarind, in Um-Helat.